What's the Cost of Childhood Obesity?

Medical costs for obese children over a lifetime rival cost of higher education

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) It's no secret that children's waistlines have grown substantially in the US. This obesity problem not only affects children's health, but also affects their families' wallets.

A recent study calculated the additional lifetime medical costs that a obese child would incur compared to a normal-weight child.

The researchers determined that the additional costs were approximately $19,000 for an obese child.

For perspective, this figure is actually just higher than the typical average cost of one year's education at a 4-year university.

"Talk to your pediatrician about your child's weight."

This study, led by Eric Andrew Finkelstein, PhD, of Duke Global Health Institute in Durham, North Carolina, estimated the cost of childhood obesity in the US.

The researchers looked for all studies that reported lifetime medical cost estimates and that had been published in the 15 years leading up to May 2013.

All the estimates were adjusted for inflation into 2012 dollars and adjusted to apply to a 10-year-old child today.

Overall, the researchers identified six studies. From these, the authors estimated that the direct medical costs of an obese 10-year-old were $12,660 to $19,630 more than the costs for a 10-year-old with a healthy, normal weight.

These were lifetime costs that took into account the typical weight gain that occurs in adulthood for children with normal weights.

If the average weight gain that typically occurs for normal-weight children is not taken into account in the comparison, then the lifetime costs for the obese child are actually greater — from $16,310 to $39,080.

The authors settled on $19,000 as the most appropriate estimate based on the data available for an obese child's additional medical costs over those that a normal weight child would incur over a lifetime.

"The alternative estimate, which considers the reality of eventual weight gain among normal weight youth, is $12,660," they wrote.

"To put these findings into perspective, multiplying the lifetime medical cost estimate of $19,000 times the number of obese 10-year-olds today generates a total direct medical cost of obesity of roughly $14 billion for this age alone," the authors wrote.

The authors also compared this amount to the cost of one year at a typical 4-year university, about $16,930.

They noted that each case of childhood obesity that could be prevented would essentially allow for the funding of about one year of a child's college education.

These costs, however, are only for direct medical costs, such as doctor's bills, hospitalizations, prescription drugs, etc.

These costs could be related to a wide range of conditions that are linked to obesity, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea and arthritis.

However, the total cost estimates from this study did not include any indirect costs of childhood obesity, such as lost productivity, and did not consider health-related quality of life.

This study was published April 7 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
April 6, 2014
Last Updated:
April 7, 2014